Chinese names too difficult for Americans to handle


A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. […] “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Matthew Yglesias responds:

As it happens, it seems to me that people of Chinese ancestry tend to have very “easy” names as things stand—lots of monosyllables and so forth. The big culprits in terms of “difficult” names, I would say, are Eastern Europeans, South Asians, upper-class WASPs, and of course those of us with Galician names like “Yglesias” that combined foreign origin with unorthodox spelling.

Which do you find easier “to deal with,” Li or Wu, or Yglesias?


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 64 Comments

i have a coworker who refuses to have a chinese name while here. i completely respect that. i however do have and use one. it was given to me by someone for whom i have only respect, for starters, so i didn’t take “awesome” (though writing that now i see i should have).

but more importantly than that, if i DIDN’T have a chinese name, when it was absolutely required to write my name (doctors office etc), id get some crap transliteration that i had no attachment to and that would probably change from palce to place depending on the whim of the writer. by having a chinese name it keeps things consistent and i don’t really mind making things easier for the people with whom i’m speaking especially when i feel that the name really is mine.

likewise, if Zhang Xiaofei wants to be called Zhang Xiaofei, take the effort to figure out how they say it and make an effort instead of being an asshole. I have to repeat my name a few times even with other native english speakers because i don’t really want to be called callum or kevin or kelly. you (rhetorical you) try for me. why not for mr/ms zhang?

April 13, 2009 @ 9:49 am | Comment

@FOARP (28). I semi-disagree with you. I work in a US company with a SZ office. I do find it almost ridiculously impossible for my US colleagues to be capable of remembering Chinese names (they seem to do okay with family names but first names they forget quicker than they are told). I am not sure why this is ….. it does not seem to be a pronunciation issues …. strictly a memorization issue. I am not condoning it, just accepting that it is one of those things that will never be corrected. Maybe it is a lack of respect. Maybe it is a lack of willingness or a close-mindedness. I think it is just plain old laziness and a lack of effort.

So most of the China staff do take English names …. they grasp that it is easier for the foreigners and they are more accepting and accommodating.

April 13, 2009 @ 4:41 pm | Comment

@Yokie – I’m okay with them doing it voluntarily if they want, but for the company to shove its oar in and say “from now on you will be called Toby”, well, that just catches in my craw.

April 13, 2009 @ 5:18 pm | Comment

“Maybe it is a lack of respect…”

Of course! So simple! How on Earth did it take fifty-two responses to figure out that our pronunciation problems are a manifestation of westerners’ disrespect for Chinese? I guess we can wrap up this conversation right here.

Another day, another Dollar, and a new Chinese ‘victim’ is born.

Turn the record over, would you please?

April 14, 2009 @ 3:15 am | Comment

@FOARP: agreed

@stuart: go away ….

April 14, 2009 @ 9:22 am | Comment

“@stuart: go away ….”

That depends. Have you turned the record over yet,Yoko? (that’s a little on-topic joke right there at the end – hope you appreciate it)

April 14, 2009 @ 11:49 am | Comment

I can sympathize with this topic. When I was growing up, some of the other kids often had difficulty pronouncing my name.

John Hildo

April 15, 2009 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

As far as I’m concerned if you have the right to live in a country you have the right to use your real name. For identification purposes, a name on its own isn’t sufficient in any case. I’m sure any polling booth in the United States will have at least 2 John Smiths turn up to vote.

April 15, 2009 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

Why do people have to use their name when voting anyways? Isn’t that supposed to be anonymous? Lots of Chinese people in China (or at least lots of young people in the cities) have translated their names into funny English names as ‘Apple’ and ‘Snow’..don’t know if that would help the American State.. People should definitely be able to keep their own name..and besides, how often does someone have to pronounce a lot of Chinese names? You probably run in to most of them while reading, unless you are very interested in Chinese people/culture/language/food…but in that case, the so called difficult pronounciation shouldn’t bother them;-)

April 15, 2009 @ 7:21 pm | Comment

where you can type your name on the line and then it tells you at the bottom how to right your name in chinese

April 24, 2009 @ 9:01 am | Comment

where you can type your name on the line and then it tells you at the bottom how to right your name in chinese and you would say it would be hard to write

April 24, 2009 @ 9:02 am | Comment

thatis aweird name is in it huh

April 24, 2009 @ 9:05 am | Comment

Slate: Why Chinese People Take English Names

“At my workplace [in Shanghai], which is 90% mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school. The names ran the gamut, from the standard (Jackie, Ivy) to the unusual (Sniper, King Kong), but what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.”

April 29, 2009 @ 1:51 pm | Comment

[…] using the English spelling, but it is not the proper name, really. Perhaps it’s just that [white/European] Americans can’t pronounce Chinese […]

December 10, 2010 @ 1:56 pm | Pingback

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